Past Periods of Climate Change Were Caused by Life Too

Climate change skeptics like to point out that over its long history, the Earth has experienced previous temperature shifts — the irony of accepting the science behind that point but not the science underlying the case for current climate change is its own topic. About this, the skeptics are correct, perhaps even more correct than they know. In the past, the Earth has indeed experienced dramatic temperature swings, and just like global warming today, some of those past shifts were caused by life.

On its face, this seems simultaneously ludicrous and logical. Humanity is the only species which has ever existed that possesses the capacity radically alter the climate, and yet if life is not driving climate change then what is?

There are other drivers, of course. Volcanic eruptions and meteor impacts, for example, cause extreme global warming. But life run amok has caused climate change catastrophic to itself in the past as well. What happens, for example, in a warm environment caused by a carbon-filled atmosphere? More plants grow, of course, feasting on the abundance of carbon. More photosynthesis means more carbon pulled out of the atmosphere which results, over time, in a cooling climate.

Life — and plant life no less — has precipitated massive climate change before, altering its environment and diminishing its own — and others’ — survival prospects. Theoretically, as they turned their faces to the sun each day to leech its rays the plants were unaware that they were committing prolonged suicide. With consciousness, humanity should have an advantage over the plants, but are we really so different?

Climate change kills species, but the Earth is still here. The Earth doesn’t need life, life needs the Earth. If life becomes destructive to itself — whether by sucking all the carbon from the atmosphere or putting too much into it — Earth will repair the damage. Our planetary hostess has eons left before she is eternally engulfed by our dying sun. She can freeze or roast until then, but will ultimately rediscover equilibrium, just like she always has.


What then, of humans and plants? Does knowing that less advanced life forms committed suicide by climate change give humanity a chance to avoid the same fate? It should, but the knowledge of the past — not to mention of the present — might be offset by the hubris that comes from acquiring such knowledge. Perhaps our collective inaction in the face of what we understand to be a dire, possibly existential threat, is driven by our confidence that we will find a solution before the worst comes. We have, after all, made it this far despite everything.

More likely, I’m afraid, is that consciousness may ultimately be meaningless here; that we are not as dissimilar from the plant as we’d like to believe. Like the flowers, vines, and trees of yesteryear slowly depriving themselves of their food source via photosynthesis, human consumption is driven by a seemingly insatiable appetite for…well for consumption. The biggest and only obstacle to preventing future warming and replacing fossil fuels with clean tech is people. We understand the problem, we fret over it, we commit publicly and globally to cutting emissions and yet emissions are expected to rise until at least 2050, if not beyond. We simply refuse to change our ways. Indeed, harm to the economy is the primary reason politicians cite for inaction, but their constituents — and not only in the wealthy west — are more concerned with immediate well-being than future calamities. Taking action means sacrificing our own standard of living, and we either cannot or will not do that.

Would the plants have been better served if they — like we — knew to take a few days off, to prolong their atmospheric carbon supply? Perhaps, but consciousness isn’t helping humanity address the issue, so there is little reason to believe conscious plants would have fared any better than humans at preventing their own demise. Furthermore, of course, there is the inherent competition of life itself. Life is built to, has evolved to, exists to survive and reproduce. It is our primary purpose. One of the most frustrating arguments one encounters when arguing for certain types of change is “if we didn’t do it someone else would.” It is a frustrating argument because it is both empty and true. If some plants had taken a few days off from turning sunlight into food others would have taken advantage of their absence and eaten more. They would have grown taller and broader, consumed even more sunlight, and crowded out their more strategically-minded (perhaps more ethical) fellows. The end result would have been the same, the plants would have suffocated.


Are people any different? It would take — almost literally — the entire world reducing emissions to zero right now and sustaining that model in order for no nation to waver and break rank. If even small nations continue to pollute then slightly bigger nations will find geopolitical excuses to pollute then medium-sized nations will find geopolitical excuses to pollute then…you see where this is going. If consciousness could be a benefit to humanity because it grants us foresight, it may also be a curse. The plants, had they known to act collectively, would not have had to deal with the calculations and machinations of foreign governments and their geopolitical schemes.

Put simply, until we find a way to “compete” with clean energy, we are going to continue polluting.

This is not to say that humanity is doomed. Like so many other species spurred by survival we can, have, and often still do find symbiosis with our environments and other species. We can work cooperatively with each other and with many of our plant and animal friends. And because we are conscious, we can analyze the problem and mobilize around a means to address it.

But whether we use that gift, whether we are actually any better than the plants, remains to be seen. Life has changed the climate to its own detriment and death in the past, and life is changing the climate to its own detriment in the present. Perhaps foresight will save us, but perhaps the competitive urges inherent to life are simply too strong to overcome and life is merely one of mother nature’s tools for cleaning up the atmospheric conditions when her internal thermometer is out of whack.

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Will Staton
Will Staton is The Director of Recruitment for Literacy Lab, an education nonprofit that focuses on building literacy skills with elementary school students. Will is an avid writer, and has authored his own book, Through Fire and Flame based on a modernization of Dante’s Inferno. He has a large portfolio of essays and op-eds on numerous topics printed in a variety of publications. Among other topics, he has written about race and racial reconciliation, education and mentoring, education and international relations, and DNA and personal data; he has published multiple pieces on foreign policy for the Strategy Bridge. Will has a bachelor’s from Washington University in St. Louis with a dual degree in religion and history and a master's in International Relations from the Maxwell School at Syracuse.


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